Why America Is Stuck With Only Two PartiesRoundup
tags: political parties, Republican, Democrat
Earlier this week, the Republican political strategist Juleanna Glover wrote on The New York Times op-ed page that disaffected Republicans are wondering “at think-tank conference tables, over coffee at the Senate Chef and at the incessant book parties on the Washington social circuit” if they can’t “jump-start” a 2020 third party presidential bid to take advantage of public disaffection with the Republican and Democratic parties.
I have bad news. It’s not going to happen. In the last week, several political commentators have offered reasons why, including The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, who wrote that “any renegade Republican who challenges Trump would feel the wrath of the right-wing noise machine.” But the structural barriers at play here are perhaps even more important for explaining why such a presidential bid isn’t going to materialize. First, the rules are rigged against any new political party getting ballot lines in all 50 states in time for 2020. Second, there’s no mass movement searching for a new party vehicle. And third, the idea of a self-financing billionaire popular enough to get around obstacles one and two is a contradiction in terms.
It wasn’t always like this. There was a time in American politics when it was relatively easy to jump-start a new political party and get it into the mainstream. That was how the Republican Party—the only third party in American history to become a major party—displaced the Whigs (along with several smaller parties) between 1854, when it was founded, and 1860, when it propelled Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.
It took three things to create a party back then: people, money, and ballots. Parties were responsible not only for recruiting and nominating candidates for office, but they also printed and distributed their own ballots (typically with the help of partisan newspaper publishers). Thus, there were very few barriers to entry: Candidates didn’t have to petition to appear on a ballot, and new parties were free to endorse candidates from the more major parties, so their nominees ran less risk of being labeled spoilers. Essentially, parties could contest for power just as soon as they had backers and supporters. This was what happened to the Liberty and Free Soil parties in the nineteenth century: Starting in the mid-1840s, as the two dominant parties—the Whigs and Democrats—hewed to the pro-slavery forces in their ranks, these new formations sprouted quickly and began gathering anti-slavery advocates.
In 1848, Free Soil nominated former President Martin van Buren after the Whigs supported slave owner Zachary Taylor for president, and got 10 percent of the national vote. Crucially, they were able to do this after the Whig convention that summer because there were no legal obstacles to getting him on the ballot. Six years later, in July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention and swept the Michigan statehouse and executive branch that very same year. By 1856, its presidential candidate John Fremont won a third of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes. ...
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